August 15, 2016 - North of Israel: Turkey, Russia, Aleppo

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Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

This week, Alpher discusses the significance of last week’s rapprochement in St. Petersburg between Russia’s Putin and Turkey’s Erdogan; where this leaves the US, Europe, and Israel; if we are witnessing, apropos Erdogan, Putin and Netanyahu, the evolution of regional leadership toward a kind of democratic-autocratic model; how Putin and Russia became so central to the Middle East drama; and why Aleppo is so important.

 

Q. What’s the significance of last week’s rapprochement in St. Petersburg between Russia’s Putin and Turkey’s Erdogan? Are the Czar and the Sultan back together again?

A. Until recently, Russia’s relations with Turkey were frozen for more than half a year after Turkish Air Force planes downed a Russian combat aircraft over Syria. Now Putin has successfully exploited Turkey’s regional isolation and Erdogan’s need to demonstrate a strategic success by bringing him to Russia, ostensibly to talk strategic relations.

This happened in the aftermath of last month’s military coup attempt in Turkey. Erdogan blames the coup on supporters of Fethullah Gulen, a dissident Turkish Islamist who lives in exile in Pennsylvania. By extension, Erdogan blames the US. The appearance of a strategic rapprochement with Russia enables him to demonstrate his pique with Washington and NATO for not supporting him more forcefully. Having already apologized to Putin for downing the Russian plane, Erdogan could now conveniently blame that incident on a Gulenist pilot and a Gulenist plot.

The Turks and Russians agreed last week to establish a “strong mechanism” for military, intelligence and diplomatic cooperation. How far this will go in genuinely bringing together two countries whose rivalry goes back centuries remains a subject of considerable speculation. At a minimum, the lucrative TurkishStream gas pipeline project linking Russian gas fields with European consumers via Turkey is back on line, along with Russian tourism in Turkey and Russian purchase of Turkish food and manufactured goods.

But Ankara and Russia continue to be at odds over virtually everything touching upon the fighting in Syria to Turkey’s south. Thus, Erdogan and Putin disagree over Assad’s fate--the former, like the US, insists Assad step aside while the latter stands by him or at least by his blood-soaked regime. They also disagree over the status of Syria’s Kurds, with Moscow, like Washington, supporting them as a useful and effective ally against the militant Islamists and Ankara opposing because they are allies of Turkey’s own Kurds, some of whom are waging guerilla and terrorist warfare against Erdogan.

As if this is not complicated enough, Turkey continues to support the Islamist Nusra Front, now known as Jaysh Fateh a-Sham or the Levant Conquest Front. It changed its name to rebrand itself as no longer an affiliate of al-Qaeda (Erdogan: “it should not be considered a terrorist organization”). It is now effectively making common cause with more moderate Islamist and US-supported rebel forces in the battle against the Assad regime (and its Russian supporters) for Aleppo.

 

Q. Where does this Byzantine labyrinth leave the US? Europe? Israel?

A. Turkey remains in NATO, however unhappy the two are with one another. It did not help relations last week when Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu explained that because Ankara is dissatisfied with the level of missile technology it gets from NATO, “it is natural to look for other [meaning Russian] options”. At a broader level, the Turkish coup and Erdogan’s high-handed response toward tens of thousands of “disloyal” Turks has distinctly muddied the waters of Ankara’s relations with the US and the European Union. EU membership prospects for Turkey are a dead letter, particularly following the warning sent by the UK’s BREXIT vote regarding Muslim immigration to Europe.

We recall that President Obama began his administration’s relationship with the Middle East by visiting Ankara early in 2009 and praising Erdogan’s reforms to the skies. In recent years Obama has been hard put to maintain strategic cooperation with Turkey in Syria in view of both the Kurdish issue and Erdogan’s domestic excesses (which began well before the coup). Now Obama has to contemplate the ramifications of possible Turkish-Russian collaboration in Syria.

The St. Petersburg visit may be little more than a dual ploy by both Putin and Erdogan. Each has his own reasons for putting Washington on notice that he should not be taken for granted. Putin may be planning more aggression in eastern Ukraine. Erdogan wants the US to back off from criticizing him and to extradite Gulen.

As for Israel, Erdogan’s Moscow move appears to have little effect on Turkish-Israeli rapprochement, which proceeds apace. Whatever Turkey and Russia do in Syria, PM Netanyahu now appears to be well positioned to deal with both.

 

Q. Apropos Erdogan, Putin and Netanyahu, are we witnessing the evolution of regional leadership toward a kind of democratic-autocratic model? Even Egypt’s Sisi fits the mold.

A. It is certainly tempting to speculate about this. Putin just fired veteran chief of staff Sergei Ivanov and is reportedly surrounding himself with younger yes-men. Erdogan has carried out an extensive purge following the abortive coup. Neither has any problem with the other’s suppression of opposition elements. Netanyahu has long maintained a constantly changing entourage of young aides, preferably American immigrants with kipot who lack the experience and the status to stand up to him (once they get the experience, he nudges them aside). Sisi has jailed most of his opponents, Islamist or secular.

Interestingly, Netanyahu gets along well with all three, with Erdogan being the only problematic partner. So does Putin, following last week’s meeting with Erdogan. Only Sisi and Erdogan remain totally hostile: Sisi accuses Erdogan, not without reason, of supporting the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, his enemy.

Now try throwing Donald Trump into this autocratic mix . . .

 

Q. How did Putin and Russia become so central to the Middle East drama?

A. Russia has been making inroads into the Middle East ever since, in 2013, Putin exploited the Obama administration’s quandary regarding a response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons and stepped in to mediate their removal. Putin followed up a year ago by deploying Russian air, naval, intelligence and special forces units in Syria, thereby preventing the fall of the Assad regime.

Russia’s success in Syria has belied Obama’s initial admonition, just under a year ago, that Moscow would regret its military involvement. Obama appeared to be viewing Russia through the prism of America’s disastrous military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, which Obama has vowed not to repeat.

But Putin’s agenda is based on radically different considerations. He wants to reestablish Russia as a global power, beginning with a restoration of Soviet-era basing privileges in Syria and possibly elsewhere. He sees Russia’s military presence in Syria as a bargaining card vis-a-vis the hostile US and EU response to the earlier Russian takeover of Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine. Ever since Putin sent his army to conquer autonomous Caucasus territories under Georgian rule in 2008, he perceives the US, NATO and the EU to be less than resolute in opposing Moscow’s efforts to reestablish Soviet-style hegemony beyond Russia’s boundaries.

Now Putin apparently hopes to make inroads into Turkey. The next area where he tests western resolve may be the Baltic states--all three EU and NATO members--with their large ethnic Russian minority populations.

 

Q. Much of the Russian-Turkish dynamic appears currently to focus on the battle for Aleppo in northern Syria. Last week, 15 Syrian doctors in Aleppo wrote to President Obama begging him to intervene. Why is this city so important?

A. Before Syria fell apart, Aleppo was its economic capital. It still controls strategic and economic links between Turkey and Syria. In Syria’s current state of collapse, Aleppo is the northern linchpin of “Useful Syria”, the non-desert western third of the country that borders on the Mediterranean and contains the many Christian, Druze and primarily Alawite minorities the regime relies on. The Assad regime and its Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah backers have already secured the coast and much of Damascus and the south. Now they are besieging Aleppo with an eye to re-conquering it and taking another major step toward stabilizing at least a portion of the country.

Two and a quarter million lives are at stake in Aleppo, making this battle potentially a bigger humanitarian disaster than anything the world has witnessed in Syria in the past five years. Those 15 doctors in rebel-held eastern Aleppo knew what they were talking about when they wrote Obama that “Right now, there is an attack on a medical facility every 17 hours. At this rate our medical services in Aleppo could be completely destroyed in a month,” Water and electricity have been cut in much of the city. Last week, Russian and Syrian aircraft bombed hospitals and the Syrians allegedly used prohibited chlorine gas in their attacks. The Syrian opposition, now spearheaded (see above) by an Islamist-secular coalition parts of which are backed by the US and parts by Turkey, broke the Syrian siege last week, thereby escalating the fighting.

Russia and the US may have found arenas of the fighting in Syria, such as the Kurdish struggle, where they can cooperate. Aleppo is not likely to be one of them. If another huge wave of Syrian refugees makes its way to Turkey and if Ankara, to spite the West, once again facilitates their flight to Greece and Bulgaria, Europe can expect another major humanitarian drama as winter approaches.

All this, just a few hours’ drive north of Israel. These are our neighbors.

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